50 stunning Olympic moments No33:
Ben Johnson wins gold … tests positive
Six of the eight 100m finalists at Seoul 1988 have been implicated in doping at some point in their careers, the Jamaica-born Canadian the first of them.
Posted by Simon Burnton
Friday 25 May 2012
Ben Johnson celebrates as he crosses the line well ahead of Carl Lewis of the USA
and Linford Christie of Great Britain. Photograph: Simon Bruty/Allsport
Ben Johnson was famous for the power of his start, Carl Lewis for the pace of his finish. It was the American's speed over the last 50m that had allowed him to beat Johnson in eight of their first nine meetings, between 1980 and 1985, repeatedly overhauling the Canadian in the closing stages. But in 1986 that had started to change, and by the time they raced in Rome at the 1987 world championships, Johnson had won five of their preceding six races. At the Stadio Olimpico, Johnson had reacted to the starter's pistol in the scarcely credible time of 0.129sec; no longer with an advantage over the second half of the race Carl Lewis, who took 0.193, was beaten before he took his first step.
So it was that Johnson approached the 1988 Olympic final in optimistic mood. "When the gun go off, the race be over," he predicted, and so it proved. On this occasion the reaction times were much closer – Johnson moved in 0.132sec, Lewis in 0.136 – but instead of catching up, Lewis continued to fall behind. Splitting the race into 10m segments, the 1984 champion only started to run faster than his rival between the 80m and the 90m mark, and even then there was just a hundredth of a second in it. Johnson had produced the greatest performance in the history of sprinting, and he had the time – 9.79sec – to prove it.
But he was not alone in performing on the big occasion: for the first time ever, four men finished the same race in under 10 seconds. After watching Johnson complete his victory, single finger raised high in celebration, the Guardian's Chris Brasher acclaimed "the greatest sprint race in history". And it was enjoyed most of all in Canada, who had last won an athletics gold medal in 1932. This success tasted all the better for coming at the expense of Lewis, widely seen as the living embodiment of American arrogance. The prime minister, Brian Mulroney, telephoned Johnson live on Canadian television to thank him for "a marvellous evening for Canada". The Toronto Star's headline the next day read "Ben Johnson – a national treasure".
Johnson's press conference performance was, perhaps understandably, cocksure. "I'd like to say my name is Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr, and this world record will last 50 years – maybe 100," he began. And even if someone beats it sooner, he wasn't worried. "You can take away a world record. But a gold medal – that's something no one can take away from you." He was wrong on every count: the record was expunged within 48 hours, and the gold medal went with it.
"When four men in one race penetrate the 10m-a-second barrier, it is right to herald a new era – the era of power" Brasher had written of the 100m final in this newspaper. "That is what brought Johnson victory in the most important race of his life." Well, that and the steroids.
On Monday morning at the Olympic Doping Control Centre, a javelin's throw from the stadium where he had produced his moment of glory, Johnson's urine tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol and he became the first of six runners in that 100m final to be tainted by association with performance-enhancing drugs. Briefly the greatest sprint race in history, it has come to be known simply as the dirtiest.
The positive test was a huge shock to the world, but not to many within the sport. In his autobiography, Lewis recalled: "It was hard to focus when I saw Ben Johnson on the track. I noticed that his eyes were very yellow. A sign of steroid use. 'That bastard did it to me again,' I said to myself." According to Bruce Kidd, who had competed for Canada in the 1964 Olympics before becoming an academic, "one prominent distance runner had refused to stand during Johnson's victory ceremony because: 'I don't want to be associated with cheaters.'"
News of the failed test sent a wave of shame and anger across Canada. Soon Mulroney was back on television, now speaking about "a moment of great sorrow for all Canadians". The Ottawa Citizen's headline was: "Thanks a lot, you bastard." The level of national obsession in this story was such that of 70 articles about the Seoul Olympics carried in the Toronto Star over the next three days, 79% of them were about Johnson. If his victory had been rapid and emphatic, so too had been his destruction: the sprint from deification to vilification was gut-wrenchingly rapid.
But the story of the Olympic Games' most famous failed drug test is convoluted and often bizarre, encompassing not just the predictable accusations of sabotage but also Congolese diamond mines and reincarnated Egyptian pharaohs.
In the days after the test result was made public, Johnson insisted that he was entirely innocent. He was rushed back to Canada, where he told a press conference that he had "never, ever knowingly taken illegal drugs". But that pretence did not last, and the following year he admitted that he had been on steroids for eight years. What he did not admit, and never has, is taking the one that destroyed him.
Johnson's personal physician, Dr Jamie Astaphan, was in charge of administering his steroid regime. He reported that Johnson had taken stanozolol on one occasion in 1987, and that it had brought on "violent muscle spasms". As a result, Astaphan did not believe that Johnson would knowingly have taken the drug again, and he certainly denied having provided it. "I must admit that even though I am his personal physician, there's no way I can keep a constant check on him," he said. "But it would not make any sense for an athlete to go back on a drug which a few months previously could have ruined him for life."
Johnson insisted he shouldn't have tested positive for anything at all. "I stopped taking steroids six weeks before the Games," he said. "I wouldn't be that dumb to take anything so close to an Olympic final." This is credible: despite his steroid use Johnson passed 19 successive drug tests between 1986 and 1988, by mastering the art of leaving enough time between his last dose and his next race for all trace of it to leave his system.
So how, then, did the stanozolol find its way into Johnson's urine sample in Seoul? His coach, Charlie Francis, believed that there had been "sabotage occurring at the lab level". As for who had been responsible, he said: "I can't talk about that. It's gets into too much potential libel. Suffice it to say, that enough things came out after the Games that it was clear that not only were they after Ben in Seoul, but that an attempt was orchestrated to get him in Rome [in 1987]."
For his part, Johnson has consistently blamed a mysterious man who had been in the drug-testing room, where Johnson drank 10 low-alcohol beers before he could produce a sample. "In the testing room, a guy walked up to me and handed me a bottle," he said. "I took it from him." When he finished this beer, he found a foul-smelling "yellow gooey substance" at the bottom of the bottle. An IOC spokesman confirmed that there had been unauthorised people in the testing area.
In 2010 Johnson published a book in which he named this mysterious character as Andre Jackson, who he said had been a family friend of Carl Lewis. In his own autobiography, published in 1990, Lewis admitted that Jackson had been in the testing room, and that he should not have been there. "I'm never surprised when Andre shows up, no matter where it is, floating around and doing whatever he wants, being in places he doesn't belong," he wrote. "Some people just have that knack."
Two years ago the Associated Press emailed Jackson, who since the mid-80s has made a fortune in the diamond industry, to ask for a response to the allegations. When it came, it was brilliantly obscure. "In the face of what really took place inside the drug testing room in Seoul, the most up to date reality is that after 22 years. I've genuinely lost interest in responding to or countering such claims, particularly since the actuality has no direct benefit to anyone," he wrote. "In conclusion, this conversation has reached its peak and I have obviously moved on with my life, so at this time I would encourage Ben to continue working on controlling his destiny (or someone else surely will)."
That 2010 book, Seoul to Soul, was co-authored by Johnson's "spiritual adviser", Bryan Farnum, a man who boasted a particular "very strong spiritual gift": an ability to look into a person's spirit and discern their previous lives. One of the other revelations in the book was that Johnson was a reincarnation of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, most famous for being behind the construction of the oldest and largest pyramid at Giza, and that Khufu had been the subject of a poisoning plot masterminded by the preincarnations of Jackson and Lewis.
"Jackson and Lewis were part of the dynasty and there was a fight for the rulership," said Farnum. "I've always really, really loved the Egyptian monuments and drawings. I'm fascinated by them," Johnson told one interviewer. "So when he told me certain things, I said: 'That makes sense.'"
At the end of 1988, with the country still reeling from Johnson's fall from grace, the Canadian government established the snazzily titled Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance, which became known as the Dubin Inquiry after the judge who presided over it. He questioned 119 witnesses who between them produced 14,817 pages of testimony, at a cost to the Canadian taxpayer of $3.6m. It concluded that the dodgy-beer allegation was exceedingly unlikely, and that the most feasible explanation for the positive test was simply that a vial of steroids had been wrongly labelled, leading to Johnson injecting stanozolol, which took 28 days to clear the system, instead of his steroid of choice, furazabol, which took only 14. The recommendations in Dubin's final report led to the introduction of out-of-competition testing. Incidentally, when he died in 2008, both Johnson and Francis came to his funeral.
The one thing we will never know is whether Johnson might have won gold without drugs. It seems unlikely: Francis remembered him as "a skinny, 93-pound runt" when they first met in 1977, when Johnson was 15 and had only recently relocated to Canada from Jamaica. One promising athlete working under Francis later quit the sport because "even Ben is beating me". In his testimony to the Dubin inquiry, Johnson spoke of his introduction to the world of performance-enhancing drugs, in 1980. "Charlie called me over and said the whole world is taking these drugs and the only way I'm going to get better is [to use] these things."
Francis clearly thought steroid abuse was widespread in sprinting, and to judge from the 1988 100m final he was probably right. Lewis, who left with the gold medal that was taken from Johnson and also won gold in the long jump, had tested positive for the banned stimulants pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine at the US Olympic trials a month earlier. The US Olympic Committee did not report the result to the IOC, part of an alleged long-term conspiracy that saw news of more than 100 positive tests buried. When this became public in 2003, Lewis defended the decision not to punish him: "There were hundreds of people getting off," he said. "We were all treated the same."
Linford Christie, who won bronze and was upgraded to the silver medal, tested positive for a banned stimulant in Seoul but successfully blamed it on a cup of ginseng tea. He tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone in 1999.
Dennis Mitchell, who came fourth, tested positive for excessive levels of testosterone in 1998 (he memorably blamed it on the fact that he had had sex with his wife at least four times that day – "It was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat"). The Canadian Desai Williams, who came sixth, admitted to the Dubin inquiry that he had used stanozolol. Ray Stewart, who finished last, became a coach and was banned for life in 2010 for acquiring performance-enhancing drugs for his athletes.
Of the Seoul finalists only Calvin Smith, – fourth and upgraded to bronze – and Robson da Silva, who came fifth, have not been implicated in doping at some point in their careers.
As for Johnson, his first race after Seoul came the following month, when he lined up against two horses and a stock car on a dirt track in Charlottetown, Port Edward Island. He came third, after the car got stuck in the mud. He returned to athletics at the end of his two-year ban and competed at the 1992 Olympics, where he finished last in his semi-final, nearly a full second slower than his time in Seoul. The following January he tested positive for excess testosterone and was banned for life. "I'm not terribly surprised," said Lewis. "Ben had to start running better or start looking for a job. If he used drugs I'm glad he got caught."
The tragedy, as in Seoul, was not that Johnson did get caught, but the number of people who did not.
What the Guardian said:
Frank Keating, 25 September 1988
Ben Johnson's astonishing kickstart technique at the gun – his coiled upper body seemingly able to catapult him away while his feet still remain on the electronic sensors of the block-pads – again ensured he had the world record in his pocket before he had completed a tenth of his 48 strides.
It left the yappy Carl Lewis almost lost for words. But only almost. At least the voluble Lewis makes up for the champion's introspection. "I let my feet do the talking," muttered the only man in the century to have broken his own 100 metres record. Fastest, you might say, to even faster – which gives him one heck of a pair of eloquently loquacious feet.
It was a thrill to be there. In fact, Johnson's reaction time out of the blocks, 0.132sec, was 0.002sec slower than his jack-rabbit flier in Rome last year – but this time it was just as murderous to Lewis's spirit. Johnson was a metre up after 15, three up at 40, and four at 65.
Immediately afterwards, Lewis said he had not bothered about Johnson – he just concentrated on his own race and performance, "looking straight ahead". Which was a fib, for three times his popping eyes had rolled right – and what he saw had made his mouth dry, for each time his tongue flicked across his lips like a chameleon under pressure.
What Lewis certainly did not see was Johnson's mouth curling into a wicked and satisfyingly vengeful grin as he crossed the line at, said the clock, just under 27mph.
Lewis had also run, it must not be forgotten, a stupendous race. He is a remarkable athlete. Scarcely had he got his shoe off the accelerator, however, than he started putting his foot in it.
Still at the trackside, he gave what could only be interpreted as his pre-planned victory speech, all about his beloved father who died last year: "My mother had a dream two nights ago, and my daddy appeared to her and all three of us were together again, and daddy told my mother that his little Carl was going to be all right on The Day, everything was going to be all right for Carl."
A couple of hours later, showered, shampooed and laden with aftershave, Lewis for a moment looked as though he was going to bury the hatchet and give his absolute best with a gracious chivalry. "Yes, of course I shook Ben Johnson's hand before and after the race," he said with solemn earnestness – and then totally ruined it by adding, "but I do that to everyone I ever race against, don't I?"
Johnson's feet having talked at 19 to the dozen, gabbing had little appeal. "I felt good," he said. "The race was won in the first 30 metres and I just took it from there." He was 14 when his mother took the five kids from Jamaica to friends in Toronto – her crucial need to find work only too obvious, for her first job began on day two of landing. She went straight to the airport hotel and signed on as a chambermaid.
By 1977, Ben, at 16, began to hang around a township gymnasium run by Charlie Francis, who specialised in athletics. He is still Johnson's coach. Suddenly, Ben Johnson – whose chronic childhood stutter had become even worse in his first years in Canada – had discovered a way for his feet to do all his talking for him.